The Beatles’ songwriting in Rishikesh
The Beatles began their trek to Rishikesh, India hoping to further their studies in transcendental meditation. The experience in the long run was to become far more valuable for their songwriting and forthcoming album rather than the original intention of the journey, for it was to be the disillusioned Lennon and indifferent McCartney who would dominate the songwriting for the Beatles in the following months, this time on a much larger scale than ever before. Even with meditation on their minds, the Beatles could never be without their music, and so John and Paul came prepared by bringing their Martin D-28 acoustic guitars (being identical models Paul had to play his upside down), and George brought his sitar.
Fellow British musician Donovan, also at the Maharishi’s camp, became an important musical presence for the Beatles, giving feedback on the constant flow of ideas, and co-authoring some central elements to the new music. Donovan’s first major contribution was to teach John a guitar finger picking style that he had gone through great lengths to learn, and once John learned it he, in turn, passed it along to George. The new style meant a new source of creativity for Lennon, who then went on to write “Dear Prudence” and “Julia” in this genre.
“Dear Prudence” was written for Prudence Farrow who, along with her sister Mia, had first heard the Maharishi speak at a January 1968 lecture in Boston, and was now spending most of her time meditating in her cottage and rarely coming out. John and George were selected to try and bring her outside, and John wrote “Dear Prudence.” Prudence remembers being informed by George that John had written a song about her, “but I didn’t hear it until it came out on the album. I was flattered. It was a beautiful thing to have done.”
“Julia” was, in John’s mind, a song about a combination of two people: as the title suggests, his mother Julia, and Yoko Ono, with whom he had now begun exchanging letters. Lennon was interested in producing an album by Yoko: “I was in India meditating about the album, thinking what would be the best LP cover, when it suddenly hit me. I thought, ‘A ha! Naked!’ So I wrote to Yoko, with a drawing.” This idea went on to become the cover for their first collaboration, the infamous Two Virgins. So in “Julia,” Yoko was the “ocean child,” that being the meaning of her name in Japanese. The line about “seashell eyes” was taken from Kahlil Gibran’s poem “Sand And Foam.” The song went on to retain its acoustic nature, and is notably the only number performed solo by Lennon in the Beatles’ catalogue.
Paul first showed John the chorus to “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” in Rishikesh, which was all he had written at this stage, and the two played the chorus over and over until Paul wrote the words for the storyline. The title phrase was Yoruba for “life goes on,” and was first spoken to McCartney by Nigerian conga player Jimmy Scott. Though Scott later played congas on an early version of “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da,” his relationship with Paul was not always cordial. Scott believed he deserved a cut of the royalties for the song, having “written” the catch phrase. Paul was deeply angered at the British press taking Jimmy’s side, and caustically told the other Beatles in 1969 about a particular article: “It just says, ‘Currently, Lennon/McCartney are doing quite well out of a riff they borrowed from Jimmy Scott, “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da,” which is topping the charts.’ Cunts. But I mean . . . you haven’t got a riff when you say ‘hello,’ that’s the riff I got off Jimmy Scott. Those two words, you know, fuckin’ hell, you’d really think we’d sort of taken his life. It’s not as though he wrote the song.” McCartney bailed Scott out of jail in 1969, and in return for having his legal bills paid, Jimmy dropped his case against Paul.
An American college graduate, Richard Cooke III, visiting his mother Nancy in Rishikesh was to form the basis of Lennon’s account of their tiger hunt, “The Continuing Story Of Bungalow Bill.” A meeting with the Maharishi after the killing of a tiger had Cooke explaining to John and Paul, “It was either the tiger or us. The tiger was right where we were.” This was to form the lyric: “If looks could kill it would have been us instead of him.” Lennon then created the name of the title character: “There used to be a character called Jungle Jim, and I combined him with Buffalo Bill.” The song to John was “a sort of teenage social-comment song and a bit of a joke.”
Having heard the Russian folk song “Those Were The Days” years before at the Blue Angel in London, Paul was eager to get another artist to record it. He first suggested it to the Moody Blues, and now to Donovan in India, who also loved the piece, but it was only when Apple signed Mary Hopkin that McCartney got his wish.
Donovan had his eye on Jenny Boyd, Pattie Harrison’s sister, and wrote “Jennifer Juniper” for her, but Jenny was not interested. Jenny herself spent a lot of time with John, who at times found it difficult adjusting to his surroundings. Suffering from insomnia, Lennon would turn to songwriting to get him through the late nights, and the songs in turn reflected his mood and outlook, “I’m So Tired” being the most representative of this. Jenny remembers: “When I was at my lowest, he made a drawing of a turbaned Sikh genie holding a big snake and intoning, ‘By the power within, and the power without, I cast your tonsil lighthouse out!’ Sometimes, late at night, I can still hear John singing those sad songs he wrote during those evenings.”
Lennon believed that he was writing some of his best material, and was fully aware of the irony of meditating many hours of the day, trying to reach God, and writing suicidal songs: “It was that period when I was really going through a ‘What’s it all about? Songwriting is nothing! It’s pointless and I’m not talented, and I’m a shit, and I couldn’t do anything but be a Beatle and what am I going to do about it?’” The psychological ego problems for John that had begun in the Sgt. Pepper period still remained. The Maharishi told him that the ego could be a good thing if looked after, but Lennon believed that and his ego were too far gone: “I had really destroyed it and I was paranoid and weak. I couldn’t do anything.”
Lennon’s “Yer Blues” reflected this attitude and the more direct nature of his lyrics. Here the sentiments of loneliness and despair were very real, and not masked by imagery in the third-person. Even free from the influence of drugs, he would go on hallucinatory trips for periods of four hours. A parody of English Blues, “Yer Blues” was Lennon contemplating the end of his marriage, and referencing “Mr. Jones,” from Bob Dylan’s “Ballad Of A Thin Man.” He also thought of a statement against the Vietnam War, a song called Revolution: “I still had this ‘God will save us’ feeling about it, that it's going to be all right . . . but that's why I did it, I wanted to talk, I wanted to say my piece about revolution.” Lennon originally envisioned it as a faster number, but when first brought into EMI Recording Studios, it had been completely slowed down, and unusable as a single. The initial recording, though, was to form the basis of two songs on the new album, “Revolution 1” and “Revolution 9.”
Musically, Lennon was disappointed in not having a piano to compose on, even though his skills on that instrument were lacking. He missed having the ability to “discover” new chords and compose songs around new melodic changes. Several of his newest songs had been piano-based in origin, including “Hey Bulldog” and “Across The Universe.” One such song, “Cry Baby Cry,” had been in Lennon’s head for months and had come from an advert that said: “Cry baby cry, make your mother buy.” In India, he had the opportunity to rework the idea on acoustic guitar and add new lyrics, which were based in part on the nursery rhyme “Sing A Song Of Sixpence.” A similar source was used in “What’s The New Mary Jane,” a wild Lennon-“Magic” Alex Mardas collaboration, which was based on A. A. Milne’s “When We Were Very Young.” A song based more on food than its apparent drug connotations, “Mary Jane” would later cause tensions between John and Paul, the latter not participating in its recording. It was eventually dropped from the White Album, and John would briefly attempt to refurbish as a Plastic Ono Band single, but it was to remain unreleased and gain near-mythological status until Anthology 3.
Inspired by Chuck Berry’s “Back In The USA,” Paul composed the story of a spy returning home from America, in “Back In The USSR.” One morning at the breakfast table, Paul showed the song to fellow attendee Mike Love of the Beach Boys, who suggested the idea of mentioning girls from Russia, the Ukraine and Georgia in the song. Mike Love’s presence at the ashram, no doubt, also helped incorporate the idea in Paul’s mind of using Beach Boys-style harmonies when it came time to record.
An early medley of sorts, Paul’s “Martha My Dear” was made up of two songs: “Martha My Dear” and “Silly Girl,” the former being an ode to his Old English sheepdog. It did not begin as a conscious attempt to write about any one subject in particular, as the opening line merely came to him and to Paul held no meaning. “It is about my dog,” Paul said in 1968. “I don’t ever try to make a serious social comment, you know. So you can read anything you like into it, but really it’s just a song. It’s me singing to my dog.”
Sitting on a roof of one of the chalets, Paul introduced the chords of “Rocky Sassoon” to John and Donovan. All three, equipped with their acoustic guitars, began making up words for the song very quickly as Paul wrote them down. Paul changed “Sassoon” to “Raccoon” in an attempt to find a more cowboy-sounding name. Paul likened the song to a one-act play, and its creation being akin to the writing of John’s two books of free-form poetry and stream-of-consciousness verse. “I don't know anything about the Appalachian mountains or cowboys and Indians or anything . . . I just made it up.”
At this point, Paul had only the melody of “I Will,” a song which, in Paul’s words, was “a pretty sort of smootchy ballad” that was actually titled “Ballad” until suitable words could be found. McCartney tried writing some lyrics with Donovan, using universal imagery, but in the end, Paul used his own set of straightforward love song lyrics, which he wrote upon his return to England. “Wild Honey Pie” came from a spur-of-the-moment sing-along at the ashram, and two other acoustically driven numbers written in India, “Junk” and “Teddy Boy,” would later end up on his first solo LP, McCartney. Lennon also wrote in this period the plaintive “Look At Me,” which he would hold onto until the Plastic Ono Band LP. He also had two throwaways that would find their way into the medley on side two of Abbey Road. “Mean Mr. Mustard,” a song inspired by a newspaper article “about this mean guy who hid five-pound notes, not up his nose but somewhere else,” and “Polythene Pam,” written about a girl who actually dressed up in polythene, though “she didn't wear jackboots and kilts, I just sort of elaborated. Perverted sex in a polythene bag. Just looking for something to write about.”
Monkeys mating out in the open inspired Paul’s “Why Don’t We Do It In The Road?”: “That's how simple the act of procreation is . . . we have horrendous problems with it, and yet animals don’t.” John’s “Everybody’s Got Something To Hide Except Me And My Monkey” was “just a nice line which I made into a song.” It was a reference to his relationship with Yoko, with filler lines from the Maharishi’s words. Some of these same words would form the basis for Paul’s “Cosmically Conscious,” a song that would remain unreleased until it closed off his 1993 album Off The Ground.
Mal Evans, always to be found taking care of the Beatles’ needs everywhere they went, was to be found also in Paul’s dreams one evening in Rishikesh. He came to him in a vision saying, “let it be.” Paul was struck by the words of wisdom, and later wrote a song around it in late 1968 on his piano in his home at Cavendish Avenue. Driving around London, Paul asked Mal if he minded that “Brother Malcolm” be changed to “Mother Mary” in the song, as the original lyrics in Paul’s mind might have been confusing to listeners, and Mal had no objections. Paul would occasionally slip in the use of “Brother Malcolm” in the song during the Get Back rehearsals of 1969, but here was another instance where Mal was essentially written out of Beatles history. McCartney conveniently changed his source of inspiration in later recollections after Evans’ death, and the real story behind the song never got out.
Though the press rarely captured footage of the Beatles in Rishikesh, one acoustic jam session and singalong was captured for Italian television. After a spirited performance “When The Saints Go Marching In” fronted by Harrison and Mia Farrow, the Maharishi urged them to “fathom the infinity, dive in the Ganges, fathom the infinity.” George replied, “Hey, we don’t merely exist.” More cheerful renditions of standards followed, with “You Are My Sunshine,” “Jingle Bells,” and “She’ll Be Comin’ Around The Mountain.” Donovan took things over with a proficient run-through of “Happiness Runs,” later to be issued on his 1969 Barabajagal LP. A Donovan instrumental was blended into “Blowin’ In The Wind” by Harrison, Bob Dylan never being far from his mind in an acoustic session. The group then intoned the “Hare Krishna Mantra,” Paul belted out “O Sole Mio,” which was followed by a Harrison-Donovan duet on the latter’s hit, “Catch The Wind.”
On March 15, Mike Love’s birthday, a tape recorder onsite in India was able to capture a rare McCartney composition about meditation and the Rishikesh experience. Possibly titled “Spiritual Regeneration,” the song bears a rhythmic resemblance to “Back In The U.S.S.R.,” in addition to using the alphabet in its lyrics and thanking their “guru Dev.” The performance was followed by a rendition of “Happy Birthday” for Mike, and a reprise of “Spiritual Regeneration” using the birthday lyrics. Many evenings in Rishikesh were spent in the large hall where the Maharishi would sit on a platform and give lectures, and occasionally mini-concerts would take place. At one such concert, Paul, George and Donovan composed a spontaneous tribute to the Maharishi, with the words:
When the sun is tucked away in bed
You worry about the life you’ve led
There is only one thing to do
Let the Maharishi lead you
The song ended with a quiet incantation of “Maharishi.” The Maharishi’s lectures in this hall were also a source of inspiration for the new Beatles music. One particular lecture on nature motivated both John and Paul to write compositions on the subject. John wrote “Child Of Nature,” a song much like “Across The Universe” with its wistful quality and poetic lyrics. After becoming disillusioned with the Rishikesh experience, Lennon changed the song’s setting from Rishikesh to Marrakesh, a city in Morocco. The song was abandoned and never seriously rehearsed or used by the Beatles, resurfacing with new words on Lennon’s 1971 Imagine album as “Jealous Guy.” Paul was inspired to later write “Mother Nature’s Son” at his father’s home in Liverpool, combining the Maharishi’s words with childhood memories of bicycle rides in the countryside. “The only thing about this one, however, it says ‘Born a poor young country boy’ and I was born in Woolton hospital actually, so it’s a dirty lie.”
The last thing George came to do in Rishikesh was to write songs, and he even chastised Paul for thinking of the next album (tentatively titled Umbrella, at this point). George only brought a sitar to India, and had to borrow a guitar off John or Donovan, so his opportunities for songwriting was limited. He wrote a verse for Donovan’s “Hurdy Gurdy Man,” which was eventually left off the final recording: “When truth gets buried deep beneath a thousand years of sleep, time demands a turnaround and once again the truth is found.” Harrison wrote “Sour Milk Sea,” later recorded by Apple artist Jackie Lomax, in ten minutes: “Even though I was in India, I always imagined the song as rock ‘n’ roll. That was the intention.” Harrison got some inspiration for what later became “Long, Long, Long” in India, but largely finished it off in England, using chords from Bob Dylan’s “Sad Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands.” Literary influence on Harrison’s music was key in this period, and most of his White Album work was to come from reading materials found back in England. Harrison’s final major composition in India was “Dehra Dun,” co-written with Donovan, concerning a town 25 miles to the northwest of Rishikesh. He would attempt to record it during sessions for All Things Must Pass, but the song remains unreleased.
The final Beatles song composed in India was representative of the whole Rishikesh experience for John Lennon: “Maharishi, what have you done?” Their bags packed, John and George were the last two Beatles to leave the ashram, waiting for the taxi for what seemed like an eternity. “We thought, ‘they’re deliberately keeping the taxi back so as we can’t escape from this madman’s camp,” recalled Lennon. “Magic” Alex calling it “black magic” did not help the situation. Their ride finally did arrive, and on the drive down, Lennon thought of calling his new song “Maharishi” until George observed: “You can’t say that, it’s ridiculous.” George instead suggested the title of “Sexy Sadie,” which John viewed as a cop out.
The Rishikesh experience was over, and the Beatles left “with a bad taste,” as John put it. The Beatles came back with a treasure trove of new songs, but Lennon emphasized that “it could have been the desert or Ben Nevis,” the location itself was not important. Still, the time spent in Rishikesh was to represent the last great spurt of creativity for Lennon during his time with the Beatles, as he would regularly tap his 1968 pool of songs for the next two years. The experience was to remain on Lennon’s mind even a decade on, his thoughts culminating into two songs written for his unrealized play, “The Ballad Of John And Yoko.” The first of these, “The Happy Rishikesh Song,” is a satirical piece that makes light of the meditation and mantras that promised to divulge all the answers. Of special interest is the coda to the song, which in sharp contrast to the title, steers towards suicidal lyrics reminiscent of “Yer Blues” with the sentiment that “something is wrong.” The second tribute, “India,” is written in the present tense, as if Lennon is in Rishikesh, remarking that he left his “heart in England” with Yoko. The song also touches upon the search for an answer in India, and that the answer would not come from Rishikesh, but was already in his mind. As Lennon said in 1980, “That was the competition in Maharishi’s camp: who was going to get cosmic first. What I didn’t know was I was already cosmic.”